Thursday, November 15, 2007

Above the (Maddening) Crowd


The Skater,

Gilbert Stuart,

oil on canvas, 1782,

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A brilliant painting. A striking portrait.

One could infer mythical associations from the composition beyond its mere mastery of the art.

The regal isolation and the stern visage of the foreground figure makes me wonder if there is a legend or a folk tale that represents Death as a skater.

Many competent paintings are interchangeable.

They portray pleasant landscapes, splendid sunsets, ships at sea, pretty people, agreeable still lifes -- or their dark, dramatic alternatives.

Like many novels.

Posts at The League of Reluctant Adults presently discuss critiques, of the self and other kind.

And mentioned those MSS which, while otherwise adequate and well-written, lacked a certain excitement, spark, sparkle.

That lack is the one intangible thing that is probably beyond the ability of the self-editing writer to recognize and repair -- if a fix is possible -- without outside advice.

On the other hand, we've all seen pieces we've itched to edit; because, with a few basic improvements in sentence structure or the addition or deletion of details, the bit of work would be brilliant. The writer had that certain spark.

With due respect to subjectivity, I wonder just what creates that sense of scintillation.

Or if it's something of the nature of you know it when you see it. And further, may vary according to the piece in question.

Is it at all identifiable in terms of mechanics?

Or is it a question that remains forever in the no-man's-land of artistic creation?

What say you?

39 comments:

Julie said...

In passing...and along these lines...

Some rare bird photographers have the knack of catching the 'jizz' of the bird- and a lot leave it looking like a stuffed duck.

ie,an ability to capture the essence?

Thankyou for calling in.

Jaye Wells said...

Julie's comment threw me off a bit. Never heard "jizz" used quite that way

Anyway, Bernita, my first instinct is to say that voice is the x-factor. It's more than that, though, isn't it?

Carla said...

I think it's often in the eye of the beholder. Books that other people rave about sometimes leave me cold and vice versa. So I wonder if it's something that happens to speak to a particular reader's experience, something that makes you think, "Ah! Yes! I recognise that!".

December/Stacia said...

Lol, Jaye, I thought the same thing!


I think it's both. Mechanics and spirit, or "sparkle", or whatever--but no, I don't think you can edit it yourself. You have to have someone else to tell you if it's there or not.

Julie said...

Typo - should that have read 'gizz -'
(gist?)
Twitcher's terminology.

Sam said...

That's a funny painting - looks like one of those 'flip card' books, where you mix the top half and the bottom half to make something incongruous.
As for your question, I think it's a mixture of technique and artistry that creates the spark. It's not enough to have one and not the other.

StarvingWriteNow said...

I'm no Michelle Kwan, but wouldn't skating with your arms crossed be difficult? I mean, aren't the arms crucial to balance?

(Granted, my skating method involves a lot of flailing and falling...)

bunnygirl said...

When the magic of character creation works and there's a clear story line, I'm inclined to forgive the author a lot of other sins. But the magic has to be there somewhere.

Bernita said...

Hmmm, so true about photography, Julie.
One vote for essence - essential identy or resonance?

My first instinct too, Jaye, with the same second-guessing.

Identification of thought or feeling, Carla? Like Julie's "essence."

Making the whole greater than the specific sum of its parts, December?

Some seminal substance anyway, Julie!

We can define technique, Sam, but can we define the "artistry?"

Bernita said...

I think it depends on the kind of skating, Starving.
And he may be coasting to a stop.

Bunny, you suggest that the particular spells that make up that magic are ineffable,or particular to the magician. You are probably right. There may be no universal Philosopher's Stone.

Robyn said...

Like Carla, I think we need to include the reader in the 'sparkle' alchemy. A trinity, if you will- technique, which can be taught; voice, which I don't think can, or necessarily should, be taught; and the reader who connects to the story.

Bernita said...

Definitely, Robyn.
"Spark" may well fall into that elusive category we define as talent rather than technique.
I just wondered if other writers (who are, after all, readers - though of a more critical kind)could identify the quality.

Angie said...

I think there's "something" there beyond the mechanics, because I can often see it, dimly, through the horrible mechanics of a baby writer. It feels like the writer has the spark or talent (however you define that) for storytelling, for creating a story that draws you along and characters who grab your interest and sympathy, although they haven't mastered the more mechanical skills of writing yet.

Whatever it is, when it's there and strong it can drag me groaning and wincing through twenty chapters of misspellings, randomly scattered punctuation, misused words, mangled sentence structure, egregious head-hopping, jerky pacing, and any other mechanics flaw you can think of. Of course, I'm dreaming the whole time of being able to tear the thing apart and drown it in red ink. [wry smile]

And actually, these are the kinds of writers I love to critique -- people who have the "talent," whatever that is, but need to learn the mechanics. Spelling and grammar and structure and pacing and whatever all else are all very learnable and are relatively easy to teach, with a motivated student. The talent or spark or whatever.... [shrug] I can give hints and suggestions about it, but I really don't know how to give it to someone who doesn't have it, nor even reliably point them in the direction of finding it for themselves. If they've already got it, though, then it's just a matter of chipping the coal away from the diamond, which is incredibly satisfying.

Angie

Ello said...

I just think that everything is so subjective to personal taste that it is really hard to figure out what is the x-factor on any writer. I've never understood the allure of James Joyce but I love Stephen King. There are books in the romance genre which make me gag just flipping through it which are bestsellers. We can't always see what works for others because it isn't appealing to us and vice versa for books that appeal to us but not others.

Julie said...

Isn't depth and range of life experience one factor in consistent sparkle and hitting the mark - and a writers extensive and accurate knowledge of their own domain?

A learned tribute to Da Vinci's 'Virgin of the Rocks'is one thing... but one to his 'Virgin on the Rocks' is quite another...

Bernita said...

As usual, Angie, very well expressed.
Agents/editors must feel at times like diamond cutters and jewellers.

Should we not try as writers, Ello, to look beyond our tastes and prejudices and try to identify the appeal of those eye-crossing narratives?

Bernita said...

The achemy of experience, Julie?
That's a good point.

Julie said...

Some of the worst books I've read (as a reader)have been partly because the writer was a weak visualizer; - which goes back to Angies comment on storytelling. Creative logicians have a powerful grip, presumably in any genre?

Vesper said...

I call it talent, Bernita.

I like the painting. Makes me think of Pan.

Bernita said...

Visualization or the ability to inspire it, either graphically or emotionally. Thank you, Julie.

And talent often defies definition, Vesper.
I think it's a spendid painting.

Scott from Oregon said...

Taking Stephen King as an example, sometimes something he writes has that "sparkle", and sometimes not.

Analyzing why brings me to the conclusion that some of his stories intrigue and excite me and some do not.

If his "voice" is constant, it would have to be the story itself...

So one explanation for "sparkle", is simply "story".

On the other hand, someone like Joyce Cary (The Horse's Mouth")sort of bored me with story, and "sparkled me all over" with voice...

So there ya have it.

Julie said...

Bernita, it sounds like there's a whole book lurking in that comment.

So - less is more; descriptive overkill ruins fizzle if you can touch a raw nerve without?

Gabriele C. said...

Most writers who have that sparkle are also avid rule-breakers.

Tolkien tells instead of shows, Bernard Cornwell uses more 'was' on a single page than I'd use in an entire 5K chapter, Katherine Kurtz suffers from adverbitis, David Gemmell gets his grammar wrong ('tethering the horse to the pole, he walked into the hut') and Jacqueline Carey starts with a first person mirror scene.

But they all have that spark that makes them autobuys and rereads.

Maybe it's the Know When to Break teh Rulez (TM) in favour of a personal style that is part of the Sparkle.

Gabriele C. said...

That is, some writers lose their spark for me when what made me love their books turns into mannierisms. I liked Gabaldon's rich tapestries and the scenes that added nothing to the plot but were fun until book three. In book 4 I got a feeling she had lost track of the balance, and I never finished book 5. It was a ramble, and frankly, the sex between Claire and Jamie isn't that interesting any longer after five books.

And if a book doesn't spark, I notice bad style to the point it distracts me - sorry, Mr. Goodkind, your wordiness (you aren't Tolkien) and your lacklustre characters were too much. ;)

Bernita said...

Indeed, Scott. A glass darkly. Sparkle, then, may not be consistent with any one factor.Or different writers use different kinds of lighters.

There, Julie, I think you're combining talent and technique.
Makes me think of that thing about squares and rectangles. One is the other, but the other is not the one.
But you may be right, excess can dull the shine.
(Since I have trouble writing "long," I naturally view succinct as a virtue!)

And that has to be a talent, Gabriele.
Some would argue they manage to be auto-buys and re-reads in spite of, rather than because of, the rule-breaking.
But it's an interesting thought.

Bernita said...

Gabriele, you lasted longer than I did with Gabaldon.Nothing fresh.
"Mannerisms" is as good a term as any.
Godkin lost me by book three.For me, in his search for fresh, he lost the qualities that I first enjoyed and fell into what I would call the John Norman/Gor syndrome.

SzélsőFa said...

Did Blogger eat my comment?
Well, to sum up; I like this conversation and the painting just as much.
Is this the whole painting, or a detail?
Either way, it's brilliant.
Somehow, I would NOT wish to have it in my house, though.
Would you?

Bernita said...

Blogger must have eaten it, Szelsofa.
Bloggers has been piggish lately.
Yes, this is most of the painting. My scanner may have shaved it a bit on the left side.
Have it in my house? Certainly - but it would depend on the size.

Julie said...

Bernita, just out of interest, are you using the Historian Database? - I recently came across it through Yahoo; clear images but tricky to handle...

Bernita said...

No, Julie, never heard of it.
My pictures come from books,catalogs, old magazines, personal photos, etc.

lester A. frack said...

at feller in at pitcher looks like he's fixin to lite inta sombody.
he aint none two happy.
i like at pitcher a you a heep better Berneeta.

Vesper said...

I've tagged you for Seven Random Things. I hope you don't mind (too much!) :-)

Shesawriter said...

That's just like the "it" factor. One person's "it" is another person's "ICK."

I've read published work that gave me the hives just by holding the book. It was dreck. However, others touted it as the best thing since microwaved French fries.

SzélsőFa said...

Hi, I found the size:
it's 245.5 x 147.4 cm (96 1/4 x 58 inches)

I did not mean the size, btw.
I find the athmosphere disturbing.

Julie said...

It's actually Images of the Ancient World - but if you're interested in passing, there's a link on the bottom of my blog.

Thankyou so much for the feedback and stimulus - there is a coracle (of sorts) on my blog photo....

writtenwyrdd said...

the term Je ne sais quoix or however you spell it really applies. It's when the sum is greater than the parts, and it's art. You can break the mechanics of why something works down all you want; but, in the end, it's pretty much "I know it when I see it" like you said, bernita.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Lester,you're such a dear guy.

~gives Vesper Eyes of Death~

Tanya, it's really, really hard to discern the appeal of some stuff out there.

I know you didn't, Szelsofa.
An eight-foot high painting is too large for my house. I don't have the necessary vista, even in the stair well.

Thank you, Julie. I shall check it out.

Spelled "quoi," Written.
Seems we pretty well all agree with that.
No general definition possible.

Church Lady said...

I love this painting, Bernita.

I received my last rejection from an agent yesterday (because I'm not going to query agents any longer).
I've received postive feedback from many agents in the bigger agencies (much like David Mcaffee).

The last one was yesterday--a response to a partial. She said a lot in her rejection. Basically, in order for agents to make money, they need to sell to the big publishers. And big publishers are unwilling to take on new writers. My voice is too different.

There you have it. I've been told I'm creative, my story is an enjoyable read, a strong voice, blah, blah, blah by many agents in reputable agencies. But because it's different, agents are scared.

Now, my strategy is to shop it around the small publishing houses.

Sorry, I didn't mean this to be about me. But when you want to sell something, sometimes the definition of talent isn't enough. And not to say I'm talented, but I'm just remarking on all new writers trying to break in...

Bernita said...

That's disappointing, Chris.Very.
Yet I think you did and are doing the right thing.
The mechanics of selling...
Have you tried also building a "portfolio" of credits with short pieces? On-line journals are as respectable these days as their print equivalents.